What would the lovely Yang Guifei,
concubine to the emperor,
a Helen of China, have made
of our gleaming grocery stores,
always awash in berries, melons,
tangerines? Her passion for lychees,
rushed north by a chain of horsemen,
laid waste to a dynasty.
She must have understood,
at least upon the deadly finale,
the cost of transporting food
so fragile over so many li
for pleasure, not necessity,
while the kingdom faltered.
History wants a great beauty
to undermine a ruler
through human weakness.
And who of highest power
would deny his most-loved mistress
her longing for a flavor
available briefly, far away?
There’s something classical
about her appetite, about the chain
of sweating couriers, thirsty, fearful
of bruising the delicate fruit.
It proves how far we’ve come,
those tiny stickers with PLUs
and far-flung nations of origin
so common, we decry the waste.
The good peasants of antiquity
always ate locally, if at the cost
of variety, and under tyranny.
Neither they nor we would refuse
a bunch of ripe lychees in December.
Neither they nor we get to choose
who would eat humbly, who like an emperor.